Reflections

“At Least I’m Not Insane”: Ongoing Reflections of a First-Semester Professor

Being a new tenure-track faculty member at a new school in a new town in a new state in a new geographical region is hard. It’s hard for all the reasons you’d expect it to be (what are the students like? who can you trust as a mentor? what’s the university climate? what do people in town do for fun?) and lots of reasons you don’t expect (strangers glaring and asking you, “do you have kids at home?” and “you wear a lot of black…do you like wearing a lot of black?”). 

Being a new tenure-track faculty member is particularly hard when you have a mental disability—maybe always, but particularly as discourses of mental illness and violence circulate due to the (literal) onslaught of recent school shootings.

What does it mean to claim madness in an academic environment where the mentally ill are increasingly blamed and stigmatized by a culture of mass shootings? (A question that doesn’t even begin to address the general stigma of being seen as crazy while in an academic position that so highly privileges intellectuals of “whole,” “rationale,” “sound” mind.) 

***

I’ve had a host of diagnoses for the past 14 years. And while I’ve always been pretty honest with myself about what those mean for me and have (for the most part) been proactive in addressing them, I had never reflected critically on them or thought of them as advantages until I entered my Ph.D. program and found myself completely exhilarated by disability studies. 

I read powerful work by incredible scholars and teachers and activists who I admired. I started teaching my writing classes with a disability inquiry. The first time I taught that course, I had a student critically reflecting on his own mental disability. He said, “I’d never thought about it as a disability before, and you’ve shown me that disability can be good.” 

It made me realize that I hadn’t considered my own disability as good. 

Generally speaking, we don’t talk about mental illness as good. That’s why it’s called an illness.

Or, as Jenny Lawson discusses in her new book Furiously Happy (that’s right, I’m reading a book for fun mid-semester), we doubt whether or not we can claim that identity at all and whether we deserve the help that we seek:

We listen to the small voice in the back of our head that says, “This medication is taking money away from your family. This medication messes with your sex drive or your weight. This medication is for people with real problems. Not just people who feel sad. No one ever died from being sad.” Except that they do. (58)

Even when I was actively suicidal, I doubted the validity of my own mental illness. We are told that mental illness is not the same thing as physical illness (and that mental disability is not the same thing as physical disability), and that’s true. They’re not the same. But they’re both valid.  

So I started owning it. As a student, I tried to be realistic about what I can and can’t do. As a teacher, I encouraged students to think critically about disability (and particularly mental disability) discourses. As a researcher, I tried to be upfront about my positionality and the ideologies (and biases) that stem from and align with my own sense of personhood. 

And as someone who was researching rhetorics of overcoming (which are so frequently found in discourses of mental disability), this was really useful both for connecting with my research and with my research participants and for applying to jobs. 

I knew that the job market would be hard for me because I have a slew of neuroses—one of which involves micro-managing every single thing that I do so that I can feel in control of a situation. For those of you who have ever experienced the academic job market, this is your cue to start laughing at me. The academic job market is rough for so many reasons, and worrying about whether you come off as a sane human being (for me at least) is perhaps the greatest stress. Last year, I decided to invest myself fully in building a strong support system and engaging in radical self-care. I picked up a stimming stone for the first time at the Cultural Rhetorics conference, and then a lovely friend gifted me a smooth glass stone to take with me to interviews. And I didn’t make eye contact with a single person for a single one of my interviews, and I rubbed the stone between my forefinger and thumb the duration of every interview, and I saw people look at it, but I was comfortable. And I said what I needed to say. And I felt good about myself. 

I knew, before I even moved away to my new job, that I’d need to find a therapist once I got there. I’m not a consistent therapist kind of person (I’m more of a “my mom just died and I’m dying inside” therapist person). That is, I go in concentrated bursts. But five weeks into the semester, I found myself on the phone with an automated voice telling me “your life matters, but we can’t take your call right now,” and I knew I needed to do something. And I did, which sounds really simple. But it’s not. 

It’s difficult to admit your own limitations. It’s even more difficult when you realize that these are things that society would deem limitations but that you consider normal. It’s damn near impossibly difficult when you find yourself in the role of a first-year tenure-track professor who has no idea of the implications of your disclosures but who discloses those things regardless because you literally can’t function if you don’t tell someone.

I take comfort in my students who (for the most part) have carved their own space within our disability inquiry and who have disclosed and grappled with and thought critically about their own mental illnesses. I take comfort in the fact that I have created a space where my students feel comfortable disclosing to me that no, they can’t come to class today because they’re going to the counseling center to address their own suicidal thoughts. I take comfort in the fact that I have colleagues who—when I cry in a department meeting with the dean—tell me it was meaningful to share my perspective. I take comfort in the fact that addressing mental illness helps to normalize it, rather than stigmatize it. 

Although, truly, there’s always that worry. 

The title of this post (“at least I’m not insane”) is something a student spat at me in class two weeks ago.

Last Monday, a UCA student was arrested out of a first-year writing classroom, handcuffed in front of his class, for making threats on Yik Yak. Lucky for us, he was an idiot kid who thought it would be funny to make an “anonymous” joke. But the shootings at Umpqua Community college, Northern Arizona University, and Texas Southern University have been very real reminders of the assumptions we make about the mentally ill as violent, although the profiles of the shooters as quiet, withdrawn, mentally disabled are quickly followed up with counter-arguments that depressed =/= dangerous and that those diagnosed with mental illnesses are highly unlikely to be responsible for mass shootings

As a writing professor who asks her students daily to be critical both of the arguments they make and of the arguments they consume from the media, this an important opportunity to be critical, to assess arguments and evidence, to avoid sweeping generalizations. It’s also an important moment to acknowledge that there are not simple answers (create a better mental health system! ban all guns! blame the parents!) for complex issues. 

At the very least, it’s an opportunity to question and be critical about our own assumptions of what it does and doesn’t mean to be crazy—not as a metaphor, but as a legitimate way to exist in and experience the world, to interact with ourselves and others.

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9 thoughts on ““At Least I’m Not Insane”: Ongoing Reflections of a First-Semester Professor

  1. As always, your blog really resonates and inspires (and really makes me wish I’d had profs like you when we were at school, and grateful for the few who were maybe more quiet about their experiences but clearly understood when I wrote them 3am emails about how I knew I had missed too much class but I just didn’t know what to do anymore). Self-care is something that is genuinely hard to do actively, it’s something that I’ve needed to do for a long time and it makes me feel sort of quietly happy to hear someone I care about actively addressing the need for it in themselves.

    A tangent: I’m very grateful that you ARE addressing this as part of your own life. We don’t talk much these days but you will always be special to me and, while awkward robot voices may not be the BEST method of expressing it, or comments on your blog, your life IS important. <333

    I was going somewhere with this….hmm. Mostly, this has given me a lot to think about, as your blogs always always do, and it makes me happy that there are people in academia like you spreading these ideas to teenagers while having to grapple it. I'm definitely linking this for some of my academic-circle friends dealing with the same issues, if that's okay??

    Anyway, be well <33 I have completely lost my track, but I miss you! and I'm always glad to see you writing.

    1. Thanks as always, Faye, for the lovely response. I had an agreement with Dean Ridley the whole 4 years I was at Hollins that I could miss class/go home/turn in assignments late if I needed to because of my mom, and it was uncomfortable for me to share that with every single professor I had. I tell my students about that on the first day of class in every class I teach, though, because I know that their lives don’t revolve around this one specific course and that sometimes (or lots of times) you just struggle and need help.

      Also, while the robot voice was not indeed very comforting, your comments are. You are also of course welcome to share this if you’d like. I hope you are well ❤

  2. This was so powerful, I hardly know what to say. I do know that I have students that really need to read these words. So many students. They want to write about these issues too and I encourage them but sometimes I think they don’t believe me when I tell them that they own their experiences and need to write about them and how they feel. We have to own our experiences before they will, even if they resist us at first. We have to be brave if they are to be brave. This post is one of the bravest I have ever read.

    1. Thank you so much, Stephanie. This is really the first semester that I’ve disclosed so much (specifically to my students in the disability-themed course), and I noticed a huge difference in the first essays as they reflected on the readings and their own experiences and encounters with disability. It’s hard for me (and I think probably for them, too), but many of them shared incredibly difficult yet beautifully rich experiences.

  3. Allison, I’m so glad I found your blog. I follow you on IG and feel like a creeper silently liking posts and never making a connection! I actually found your blog on accident and was so comforted by this post because I also started a full-time (community college) instructor position this fall and have been debating how much to disclose about my own situation – my personal life and my mental health – on my own blog. I have this long post written about self-care, about the importance of being open and honest about our experiences and diagnoses, but was terrified that my colleagues, or worse, the administration, would come after me for being too open, for oversharing, for being vulnerable. Maybe I’ll finish it after all.

    At 4C’s when it was in Indy, I had tweeted about people reading their papers out loud instead of presenting them with handouts and/or a visual aid (in other words, it was hard for *me* as an audience member to follow along!), and you responded with something (I don’t even remember your exact words) about how it is not okay to make assumptions about the needs of others – essentially, that some people might need to do it that way in order to share their work, period. I felt defensive and frustrated because I do think that it is important to understand the way a conference works in terms of audience engagement, but I also sympathize greatly with a person’s need to feel safe and comfortable in order to participate in that community. I suppose what I am trying to say is thanks, for that, because here we are a year and a half later and I’m still thinking about that brief moment where I saw your response, got pissed, and then carried it with me until I understood it more myself.

    Anyway. I look forward to reading through more of your blog, and about your experiences as a new professor. I’m right there with you. Also, I love your haircut. 🙂

    1. Thank you so much for this, Chelsea: both the comment about your own situation and the comment about CCCC. I think about that moment a lot, too, so I appreciate you mentioning it. I feel threatened in situations like that where I perceive the discussion being about how non-normative forms of presentation/engagement can’t ever be truly engaging. I will likely always read a paper at a conference, which will be written exactly how I speak (like a speech, I guess, more than a paper). I always have a full-text handout and a visual presentation. It’s difficult to anticipate conflicting access needs, particularly when we get defensive about our own needs or feel like those needs are under attack. That’s a bit long-winded, but I do appreciate you bringing it up.

      Also, I hope you share the post about self-care (only if you’re comfortable, of course). I worry a lot about who will read what I post, but at the same time academia is so taxing, and this is one way for me to manage and reflect on that stress & discomfort & anxiety in ways that I think are somewhat productive. I hope the rest of the semester goes well for you.

      1. I so badly wanted to clarify what I meant in that moment, too, and couldn’t really with the character limit on Twitter. Audience members have needs too, right? Just like presenters have preferences/needs in terms of how they share their work, audience members need access to those ideas in a way that acknowledges their preferences/needs/abilities/disabilities, and so on…so it’s a bit of a balancing act sometimes (or difficult, like you said!), in terms of supporting yourself as a presenter and also meeting the (varying, unique) demands of the audience. I have a hard time when people read their papers and don’t provide anything for the audience, because it is hard for me to follow along when someone reads out loud a paper that *isn’t* written like they speak. I could appreciate it so much more if I had a copy to follow along with, you know? Sidenote: this is why I love mini-zines. Super easy, engaging, fits in a pocket, they make people smile, and you can even photocopy a larger font, more “traditional” document on the back side.

        I’ve posted a little bit, and usually share more on FB and IG about my experiences with anxiety and self-care. I’m growing more comfortable here at this school, but definitely feel what you do – worrying about who might read it, feeling the pressure and the exhaustion of constantly being “on” and “working” and thinking/growing/reading/writing/making, and how to confront the fact that the same thing that raises these concerns is the one thing that brings relief.

        I hope you have a good rest of the semester too and look forward to connecting more. ❤

  4. Hi Allison,
    My Rhet/Comp prof sent me a link to your July review of James Berlin’s book to consider for my final paper. Anyways, as always, I began poking around your blog just to get a perspective and came across this post which resonated heavily with me as I struggle to complete a semester that was going so well, and then suddenly was not. (I got blindsided by an incident a couple of weeks ago and not only does it have me questioning all my goals for being in this program, but it has sent me into a huge tailspin at a time I can least afford it, of course.)
    I just wanted to let you know that I totally appreciated your reflections here and that I also just finished Jenny Lawson’s new book and found it hugely reassuring as well. Hope you have a good rest of the semester!

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